WOMAN IN THE DUNES, based on the novel by screenwriter Kôbô Abe, is the kind of film that sparks all manner of discussion over what it all means. When it arrived stateside in 1964, it was hyped as being wildly erotic. Well, there are a few shy nude shots of the winsome leading lady, but its eroticism, replete with such phallic symbols as a blatantly tumescent thermos bottle, now seem quaint, not shocking. Unless a case study in the psychology of futility can be said to have a prurient interest.
An amateur entomologist (Eiji Okada) is on vacation from the oppressively mechanized urban world. While searching for a bug to make him famous, he misses the last train back to anywhere and becomes stuck in a remote area of Japan made entirely of sand. And not just any sand, as envisioned by director Hiroshi Teshigahara, this sand is a living thing, rolling, flowing, and engulfing. It’s a dynamic character, menacing in its complete indifference to the puny humans in the way of its shifting dunes.
He soon finds himself trapped with no hope of escape in a house standing at the bottom of a deep sandpit with a woman (Kyôko Kishida) who expects him to take the place of her dead husband. The sand collapses beneath his desperate attempts to climb out, and when he refuses to help with the endless task of shoveling the ever-encroaching sand, he’s denied food and drink. The city doesn’t look quite so bad anymore.
As the sand rumbles ominously, nature takes its course. The man and woman consummate their frustration in an outburst of procreative activity that could be interpreted as an affirmation of life in the face of death by boredom.
What entices the man to stay, though, is not sex; it’s the discovery that there’s water in the ground, with the dunes acting as a giant pump. Aside from the sexual overtone, this opens up new possibilities for the man. Working with the sand, not against it, maybe even bending it to his will.
So, who’s in charge here, humans or nature? And what about free will? WOMAN IN THE DUNES only asks the questions. The answers remain tantalizingly enigmatic.